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Hundreds Join Hunt for Missing Woman

Times Staff Writer

Laci Peterson’s life was just where she wanted it to be.

She had grown up on a dairy farm outside town and went away to college on the Central Coast. When it came time to plant roots and have children, Peterson came back to this community with her new husband Scott.

They were expecting their first child, a boy, in a few weeks. It was Christmas Eve and the invitations to the baby shower were in the mail. Scott was away on a daylong fishing trip. The 27-year-old stayed home to prepare for Christmas brunch. She loved to entertain and already had begun setting and decorating the table.

That’s when she took the golden retriever out for a walk.

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She hasn’t been seen since.

Peterson’s disappearance rallied this agricultural community into action. Her cousin, Kathleen Farley, said so many new people were volunteering each day to search and hand out fliers that she “hadn’t seen the same face twice.”

She said she knew why the disappearance had struck such a chord.

“I think it has to do with her being pregnant and the idea of someone being taken from their home and family on Christmas Eve,” Farley said.

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By Sunday, 10,000 fliers had been distributed and 15,000 more were being printed. Grim-faced dairy farmers were among hundreds of volunteers combing the area on foot and horseback.

A makeshift command center at a motel was inundated with those seeking to help, any way they could. Cheryl Bell and Lisa Cano drove in from outlying towns and carried out armloads of fliers to distribute at area stores.

“She was pregnant, she was our age, and we feel like we can relate to her,” Cano said, pushing her toddler in a stroller. “We were free and able to do something.”

It is not an unexpected response from this tightly knit region. Suburbia may be gobbling at its fringes and housing tracts swallowing farmland, but even as Modesto has grown, it has responded to Peterson’s disappearance with a rural heart.

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“As much as this town has grown, it hasn’t lost its concern for other people,” said Modesto police chaplain Don Crooker. “The feeling of community, that family feeling, is still very strong here.”

Crooker said that what Modesto could not do for Chandra Levy, a Modesto woman who disappeared far from home while an intern in Washington, D.C., it was doing for Peterson.

Peterson is described by family and friends as vivacious, fearless and feisty. The former high school cheerleader attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she received an award as outstanding freshman in her major, ornamental horticulture.

At college she met Scott Peterson, who grew up in the San Diego area. After graduation, the couple opened a restaurant, The Shack, a hangout for college students. They closed it after deciding to move here two years ago.

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In Modesto, the Petersons settled in an upscale neighborhood near La Loma Park, where Laci Peterson was last seen walking her dog about 10 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Scott Peterson told police he had been fishing from a Bay Area marina and returned home in the late afternoon to find her missing.

Police did not name Peterson as a suspect, but said they were working to corroborate his story. So far, police said, they were unable to find anyone who saw Peterson at the marina the day his wife disappeared.

Police said they had identified 175 high-risk parolees and sex offenders in the area and had begun questioning them.

“Five days have passed, and the longer it goes, the harder it becomes,” police spokesman Doug Ridenour said. “It’s not been easy, but we are going to continue.”

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Ridenour said authorities have received 340 tips and were investigating the promising ones.

The reward for information leading to Peterson rose to $500,000 Sunday, as the young woman’s family made an emotional plea for her safe return.

“I love you very much. We want you home,” said Peterson’s father, Dennis Rocha.

A small, powerfully built man wearing steer roping boots and pressed jeans, Rocha said his dark-haired daughter was his “spitting image,” favoring his Portuguese ancestry.

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He recalled the first seven years of his daughter’s life on the 350-acre dairy, and caring for 600 Holsteins.

Much of the support for Peterson comes from the farming community of Escalon, where the Rocha family raised milk cows for 50 years.

“It’s tearing our family apart,” Rocha said. “Christmas Eve, of all times, to pull something like this. We’ve got to get her back.”

Sharon Rocha, who divorced her husband more than 20 years ago, said that although more than five days had passed since her daughter has been seen, she needed to believe in the best of outcomes.

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“We are going to find Laci and she’s going to be fine,” she said. “And then we are going to finally have Christmas.”


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